Good MPG Can Still Be Fun

2012 Volkswagen Golf R.

Driving can be fun with the right car. The problem is, a lot of those “fun” cars also use lots of gasoline. With the price of a gallon of unleaded having jumped up at a rapid pace so far this year, many car buyers are skipping fun and seeking “frugal” instead.

But if you look around, there are new cars that add a dose of fun to their fuel efficiency. Case in point is the Volkswagen Golf R. It sits at the top of the ladder of VW’s venerable compact hatchback, besting the GTI with a bunch of extra horsepower and the traction of all wheel drive. No, it’s not the most fuel efficient car in Volkswagen’s lineup, but a great combination of reasonable economy and driving thrills.

There’s quite a bit of back story to the Golf as a nimble performance car. Back when the little hatch first arrived (in America it was sold as the Rabbit), the industrialized world was in the throes of the OPEC oil embargo, and the antiquated Beetle was slowly being shown the door as VW’s mainstream car.

The Golf was an economy car for a new era, where practicality would be combined with nimble handling and zippy acceleration. Volkswagen’s little hatchback arrived at just the right time.

Of course, we in America were always denied the hottest versions of the cars sold in Germany and the rest of Europe, but by 1983 the marketing arm of VW’s U.S. operations had won their case and were allowed to finally sell the hopped up version of the Rabbit called the GTI.

As a range-topper, the GTI showed that an economy car could be athletic in the corners and also provide a bit of visual sizzle at the same time. For many years, it didn’t exactly set the sales charts on fire here in America, as we’d gotten used to cheap gasoline and had a penchant for larger cars and SUVs.

Fast forward to 2012, and it’s like the 1970s all over again. Everyone’s complaining about the price of gas, and many are considering downsizing when they go to trade for their next ride. VW refers to the Golf R as part of “intelligent downsizing.”

It starts out like the regular Golf in basic shape and size. But the R model ups the ante when it comes to what you can’t necessarily see, advertised with a discreet “R” logo on the grill and rear hatch. Start looking a little closer, and you’ll begin to see what makes this ultimate Golf tick.

First up are handsome 18” wheels with performance tires. Not over-the-top, barely-stuffed-into-the-fenders rolling stock, but just enough to get the job done. Behind the spoked wheels are large performance brakes that further hint at what this car is all about.

Open the hood, and the major mechanical part of the R package comes into view. A turbocharged and intercooled 2.0 liter four cylinder making 256 horsepower. The GTI model, which occupies the next rung down on the Golf ladder, gets by with only 200.

The R’s engine is connected to a 6-speed manual transmission (sorry, there’s no automatic offered) which then sends the power to Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all wheel drive system, since that would be a lot of ponies for just the front wheels to handle. The system is so well balanced that you’d almost never suspect there was all wheel drive in play if you didn’t know.

There’s an economical side to this car too. Drive it carefully, and you should easily be able to achieve its 19 mpg city and 27 highway estimates. It’s an economy car (sort of) for the weekday commute, but a road burner when Saturday and Sunday roll around.

The “economy” part is also tempered by the ultimate Golf’s sticker price of $34,000 plus a sunroof and navigation if you want them. And since this is a limited edition model, don’t be surprised if some dealers try to tack on an additional markup.

But even though it’s not an ultimately frugal choice, the Golf R bridges the gap between practicality and driving fun. When gas was much less expensive a couple of years ago, it might not have attracted so much attention. Nowadays, with miles per gallon becoming fashionable, this little VW could be a big star this year.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave

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